Australian higher education conference discusses threats to free and open exchange
Universities are being caught in a “race” between powers for technological dominance, a national conference has heard.
However, it is a “terrible message” to send to researchers that they should not work with others, particularly China, according to Catriona Jackson, chief executive of the vice-chancellors’ group Universities Australia.
She said that “if you can’t see that we are in a period of extraordinary geopolitical flux, you are not looking very hard”, and that the threats of foreign interference and cybercrime were being added to the threat of terrorism.
But Australian universities “all work, and we have to work, across national boundaries…and we don’t find them dangerous, threatening, alien and hostile”.
Speaking at Universities Australia’s annual conference on 22 February, Jackson said that universities have to grapple with “how we continue that fundamental free and open exchange”.
The University Foreign Interference Taskforce, a collaboration between universities and government, is the main tool for that and has arisen in a period when national security forces are “terrifying” universities with the risks. “We have got a very, very delicate balance here,” she said.
Michael Wesley, the University of Melbourne’s deputy vice-chancellor for international affairs, told the same conference session: “We’re definitely in a period of heightened national security competition…
“Knowledge is increasingly becoming securitised in that competition…[and] that has started to impact very heavily on what universities do.”
Wesley said there was “a level of incomprehension in universities” about the nature of the risk. “There would be significant numbers of academics around the country that think this is all kind of spooks kind of scaring people.”
Universities have responded by developing guidelines and disclosure regimes that are not “intrusive and scary”, he said. However, they need more interaction with security agencies.
“What we don’t have is that sort of regular relationship with the security agencies that they are able to guide us with more certainty about where the foreign interference risks lie.”
Because university culture is one of sharing knowledge, and security culture is “much more cautious”, he said that he did not know “if we’re ever going to know if we’ve got it right”.
Wesley defended Melbourne’s China-funded Confucius Institute, saying it had been assessed by multiple agencies and government departments as not being a security threat.
China is a major research partner for Australia, providing strong investment in its research. “Do we really want to cut ourselves off from that?” he asked.
Jackson said that as the geopolitical situation changed, there was a risk of “the blunt instrument of regulation being flopped on top of you”. But the University Foreign Interference Taskforce aims to be a mechanism that means “overregulation and overlapping regulation will come to an end”.
A recent report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a private sector think tank, says that China is overtaking its Western counterparts in research on a number of “critical technologies”.
A version of this article appeared in Research Europe